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All of you approached me and said, "Let us send out men ahead of us and let them spy out the land. They will bring word back to us…" (1:22).
Just prior to his death. Moses addressed the Israelites. His opening recounted their inappropriate reaction to the Spies' report on the Promised Land, and details of their consequential forty years wandering in the desert.
However, much of the narrative-based rebuke referred to events forty years previously, when many of those listening to him had not yet been born.
This seems all the more strange, as he could have used events within the living memory of his audience. Baal Peor (Num. 25) gets a passing mention early in the next parasha (4:3-4), but as a reminder of G-d's omniscient power rather than as a rebuke. Indeed, Moses' phrasing could imply praise for the surviving Israelites who did not follow Baal Peor. What then was the significance of G-d referring to events in the distant past in his final words to the Israelites before his death, and on their entry to the Promised Land?
In response, it may be suggested that Moses was using his skills as a leader of people and as a nation to decide what to prioritize in his last address, as explained below.
By the time Moses' forty years were up, he had achieved a lasting and deep relationship with them. At the beginning, "the Israelites would not listen to Moses" (Ex. 6:9). By the time they got to know him, they trusted him and showed him appropriate deference: exemplified by the tribal elders of Gad and Reuben referring to themselves as Moses' servants (Num. 32:25). Israelite society was more stable, and the people knew where they stood. There was no communal support for aberrant behaviour - those being involved with Baal Peor being the exception, rather than within the normal character of the community. Pinchas' reaction was not opposed.
However, that phase was already closing. Moses was about to die. A new leader was going to take over, and their circumstances would change radically. The Israelites would be a settled civilization, and no longer an assembly of wandering tribes with all their needs taken care of. In other words, they were about to start all over again. As in the Exodus, they would be the same people, but a new society. And like the Exodus, they were to face civilization-defining events. With the Exodus it was the Spies. With the settling of the Promised Land it was how to face enemies from without, rivalries from within, and practices explicitly forbidden by the Torah. The opening steps taken by the Israelite settlement would be the defining ones for that civilization.
Hence, the thrust of the Book of Deuteronomy - the bulk of which contains Moses' final addresses to the Israelites, is on preparing them to take the correct steps in the initial, definitive moves for the new society based on the revealed Law of Moses. And in reminding them of their previous errors at their earlier, definitive phase of their present society, the intention was to ensure that they would avoid mistakes of the same magnitude in the early, definitive stage again.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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